Today, as environmentalists face an increasingly hostile atmosphere in Washington, D.C., the Jewish community has taken a leading role in battles over energy independence, against global climate change, reducing air pollution, cleaning up the nation's waterways and saving large swaths of wilderness from becoming massive housing developments filled with McMansions.
"We don't own the earth, God owns the earth. We are only here as God's caretakers," said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, rabbinic fellow for the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, known as COEJL, a national umbrella group created in 1993.
For most of the modern environmental movement's history, beginning with the 1962 publication of Pennsylvania biologist Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, detailing the harm DDT and other pesticides were causing in the natural world, the green agenda has largely been viewed as a secular one.
"People didn't really see the connection with religion," explained Troster. "And the environmental movement itself did not reach out to the religious communities. Many of the secular environmentalists were anti-religious, because they blamed the Judeo-Christian tradition for environmental degradation."
That sentiment was due in part to a highly influential 1967 Science magazine article by historian Lynne White, who argued that the West's rampant disregard for the natural world stemmed largely from an interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. In it, God tells the first man and woman to "fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth."
But Troster explained that by the 1980s, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant theologians had expressed challenges to White's view, arguing that the actual meaning of the text calls for stewardship, not reckless abandon.
"Nature is God's revelation," said Ellen Bernstein, who in 1988 founded Shomrei Adamah – "Keepers of the Earth" – a Philadelphia-based organization that stresses Jewish environmental education. She is also the author of the recent The Splendor of Creation, a meditation on that same chapter of Genesis.
Bernstein said that when she started Shomrei Adamah, "social justice was what the Jewish world cared about. The environment just wasn't on people's radar screens."
'Help Preserve the Earth'
That slowly began to change.
Long before green became mainstream in Jewish life, Philadelphia's Rabbi Arthur Waskow was using the term "eco-kosher." The concept, which he in turn borrowed from his mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, asks individuals to look at everything they consume, from the food they eat to the energy they use, and evaluate whether it is consistent or not with ecological values.
Both Waskow and Bernstein believe their efforts to merge ecology and Judaism encouraged many Jewish environmentalists to return to a religion from which they'd been estranged, while at the same time adding a profound moral authority to the cause of protecting the planet.
"If Judaism is not dealing with the single most important issue facing the human race, then why should anybody be interested in Judaism," posed Waskow, who in 1983 founded the Shalom Center, which currently is fostering a "Beyond Oil" project, asking people to consider alternatives to fossil fuels.
Troster explained that it wasn't until the early 1990s that the Jewish world – in addition to the wider religious community – embraced environmentalism wholeheartedly.
At the beginning of the decade, 32 Nobel Prize winners and other scientists, including Carl Sagan, penned an "open letter to the religious community" that urged the faith community to engage in "joint action to help preserve the Earth."
In 1992, senior Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders laid the groundwork for the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. From this sprang COEJL, originally a project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, but now an independent umbrella group made up of 29 Jewish organizations representing the four major denominations.
Since then, major secular organizations such as the Sierra Club have taken notice, and have initiated a number of joint programs and projects with COEJL.
Yet while faith-inspired environmentalism seems to be on the rise – a popular advertising campaign by the Evangelical Environmental Network urging Christians to consider "What Would Jesus Drive?" garnered substantial media attention – some consider the mainstream environmental movement to have run out of gas after more than three decades of moving ahead.
From within and without, the environmental movement has of late been the target of especially harsh criticism, and is perhaps even undergoing some soul-searching.
More than a decade ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club declared global warming – or climate change – public enemy No. 1, but neither has managed to win a major legislative victory on reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.
According to scientists, carbon-dioxide emissions are a prime cause of a recorded rise in global temperature, but there is a wide disagreement as to how much and how fast weather is changing.
"We are facing the most hostile administration and Congress in terms of environmental, energy and forestry policy," declared Larry Fahn, immediate past president of the Sierra Club and a member of Shabbos Shul, the Shul of Marin County, Calif.
With the green agenda stopped cold in the nation's capital, the appearance of an essay ominously titled "The Death of Environmentalism," written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, sent shock waves through the environmental community when it began circulating this past fall on the Internet. Among other things, the writers – both long associated with environmental activism – claimed that preservationists had allowed themselves to be pigeonholed as a special-interest group that cared more about bird nests than people's jobs.
"The environmental movement has managed to get itself effectively portrayed as an elitist kind of movement, something that's a concern of people who are affluent and not central to the concerns of working people," said Brian Donahue, an environmental historian at Brandeis University.
Fahn dismissed such sentiments as out of touch with reality. "Environmentalist interests are the general interests, not the special interests," he said. "Everybody wants clean air and clean water, regardless of party affiliation."
But Ben Lieberman, senior policy analyst on energy and environment at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, believes that certain green groups have alienated themselves by overstating threats, often discussing problems in apocalyptic terms.
"They are trying to use the environment to advance a larger agenda," said Lieberman. "Some environmentalists really are anti-growth, anti-property rights, anti-freedom. The suggestions that the world is coming to an end unless we greatly change the way we do things – I'm universally skeptical of that kind of rhetoric."
Around the same time the Shellenberger and Nordhaus essay appeared, conservationists also took a hit in the realm of popular culture. Michael Crichton, bestselling author of Jurassic Park, sold nearly a million copies of his latest thriller, State of Fear, in which a cabal of eco-terrorists use high-tech gadgetry to stage natural disasters to be blamed as proof of global warming. That way, their green agenda would hopefully be advanced.
In fact, one of the book's villains leads a fictitious national environmental defense group.
Throughout the book, Crichton utilizes charts, graphs, footnotes and citations to reiterate the question: Is global warming really happening at all, and if so, are people really the cause?
"We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organizations," he stated in an author's message at the end of the book. "We need more people working in the field – in the actual environment – and fewer people behind computer screens. We need more scientists and many fewer lawyers."
'A Core American Value'
On the other side of the ideological divide sits Adam Stern, the executive director of COEJL who believes critics such as Crichton and Lieberman downplay the achievements of the environmental lobby, and lure people into ignoring real threats.
"In the 35 years since the first Earth Day, the United States, under steady pressure by citizen activists and environmental professionals, has dramatically reduced air pollution, cleaned up rivers and streams, phased out lead in gasoline and protected thousands of acres of wilderness," he said. "Along this impressive path of progress, environmental protection has matured from a special interest to become a core American value."
Stern hopes that by invoking America's diverse religious traditions, faith-based groups can give the environmental movement a boost by specifically using its causes to bridge the much ballyhooed red state-blue state divide.
"We are trying to rise above the politics and deliver a positive message that draws on a common religious heritage," stressed Stern. "And we want to make sure Jews are aware of what our religious tradition has to say about the environment – in the Torah, in the Talmud and some of the commentaries – that it offers a rich source of support for environmental values."
For now, in addition to waging legislative battles, religious and secular groups face the added challenge of simply getting people to pay attention.
After all, it's been years since headline-grabbing events like the 1979 Three-Mile Island nuclear scare in Pennsylvania or the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska served as stark reminders of the damage humans can cause to the planet.
And while battling the last major crisis – the depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency is caused largely by chlorofluorocarbons in spray cans – took a historic 1990 international banning of the chemicals, experts say that the fight was easy compared to the quagmire presented by what is often referred to as global warming.
"The question is, how much is an acceptable risk? You can have a pure environment if you don't want to have an industrialized society," said Terry Bossert, a Harrisburg attorney who served as chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection during Republican Gov. Tom Ridge's administration.
Needless to say, convincing Americans – let alone a world linked by a global economy – to wean off gas is no small feat.
"With global warming, we're talking about the fossil fuels that run our entire economy" said Donahue, "and there is no substitute in sight."
While there may be no magic bullet, there's also no shortage of proposed measures.
"There should be solar panels on buildings and houses. We have to triple the gas mileage of every car and truck in the country. We need to start transforming our fleet of cars to hybrids, and then ultimately to hydrogen," declared Fahn. "Taking care of the planet is the ultimate religious request from the creator."